BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Charles Barron calls Robert Mugabe and Moammar Gadhafi his “heroes.” He compared Israel’s government to the Nazis, says he won’t salute the American flag, and once offered that he wanted to “slap” the nearest white person.
And come January, he could be central Brooklyn’s newest congressman, if voters here give him an upset victory in the Democratic primary on June 26.
Barron, a longtime New York City Councilman, is running for the congressional seat being vacated by the retiring Rep. Edolphus Towns (D), a 30-year House veteran whom Barron tried to unseat in 2006 and again earlier this year.
With much deeper coffers and establishment support, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is the favorite in the race, but a run of key endorsements — including the surprise backing of Towns — has given Barron hope for a win in a primary for which turnout is expected to be low. The 8th district is heavily Democratic, meaning the June 26 winner likely will cruise to election in November.
A former Black Panther, Barron is known for his rhetorical bombs, and in a House that will be devoid of departing Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.), he could easily claim the mantle of most outspoken member, and arguably the most radical.
During more than a decade in the City Council and as a candidate for higher office, he’s described Mugabe and Gadhafi as “African heroes,” likened Israel’s conduct to that of terrorists and Nazis and, at a rally for slavery reparations, suggested he wanted to “slap” the nearest white person, “for [his] mental health.”
On Monday, a group of Jewish officials, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), held a press conference calling Barron an “anti-Semite” and warning against his election. In a scathing editorial over the weekend, the New York Daily News denounced Barron as “a malignant clown” whose election would be “a profound embarrassment” for the city. The paper urged voters to “rush to the polls” to support Jeffries.
In a 50-minute interview at his campaign office in east New York, Barron, 61, was unapologetic, but he tried to distinguish between what he called the “sound-bite Charles Barron” and the “whole Charles Barron.”
“I don’t back away from anything,” he said. “I said it. I knew what I was saying. I’m an adult.”
It was a point he repeated hours later during a candidate forum in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where more than 50 people packed into the front bar area of a nightclub. “I am more than a sound bite. I have been productive,” Barron told the crowd. He highlighted his record of bringing in more money for affordable housing, parks and senior centers in his district.
The reconfigured 8th district cuts through the heart of Brooklyn and comprises both poor and gentrifying neighborhoods, forming a constituency that is considerably more racially and socioeconomically diverse than Barron’s local district.
Personally warm, Barron is a fixture in central Brooklyn with a loyal following.
Twenty years younger than Barron, the more laid-back and technocratic Jeffries is seen as a rising Democratic star in Brooklyn and boasts endorsements from more than a dozen elected officials and unions. He has focused almost exclusively on his legislative record during more than five years in the State Assembly, citing his sponsorship of bills reforming drug laws and the way prison populations are counted in congressional apportionment.
Like Barron before him, Jeffries never mentioned his opponent’s name at the forum and criticized him only by implication. “I’m just asking you to take a real hard look at my record — not the sound bites, but the substance, not the rhetoric, but the results,” he said.
Barron didn’t stay for Jeffries’s remarks, but he had heard them before. In the interview, he said his goal in Washington would not be to sponsor key legislation, but to mobilize a movement behind the need to “prioritize the people over the powerful.”
“If you are going to campaign on, ‘I’m going to go to Washington and pass all of this legislation,’ you’re delusional. That’s what my opponent has been saying,” Barron said. “And I’m saying he’s delusional, and he’s young and immature and unreal to think that he’s going to go to Washington and get a bunch of legislation passed.
“The only way we’re going to get legislation passed is if we have a person like me who’s going to bring a movement with him — the 99 percent of them to Washington.”
Jeffries said Barron’s criticisms were “reckless statements that don’t merit a response.”
“My track record in Albany speaks for itself,” he said in an interview. “I haven’t focused on sound bites. I’ve focused on substance.”
Towns threw his support to Barron last week, despite the fact that Barron ran an aggressive campaign to defeat him for reelection in 2006, accusing him of having few accomplishments to show for his then-quarter-century in office. Towns won by 4,000 votes, taking 46 percent to Barron’s 38. Barron and his supporters gripe even now that if it weren’t for the late entry into the race of a third candidate who split the vote, Barron would have won. Barron also earned the endorsement of a key local union, District Council 37, an AFSCME affiliate.
Towns announced his retirement this year after both Barron and Jeffries had declared their candidacies, and backers of Jeffries believe the congressman’s endorsement of Barron was merely aimed at delivering retribution to Jeffries, whose challenge was seen as a bigger threat to Towns’s reelection.
In an interview, Towns said he endorsed Barron because he’s “someone who stands up and says what needs to be said, and we need that today more than anything else.”
Asked if Barron was perhaps too radical for Congress, Towns said, “He’s changed. He knows that a lot of the things he did at the council level won’t work here. They just won’t work, and he knows that.”
As for being labeled a radical, Barron told The Hill it was “really not a bad thing.”
“It’s a Latin word meaning ‘getting to the root of the problem,’ ” he said. “So radical is, in that sense, is what we need. We need to get to the root of the problem.”
And how would Congress be different with Charles Barron as a member? “Oh, man,” Barron said with a big laugh. “It would the best thing that could happen at this time in American politics. If you can bring someone in that can bring a movement with them. Activism. Boldness. Unbought, unbossed.”